Dr. Avriel Licciardi, Associate Editor
With the urgency of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) jolting scientific research into a hastened state, thousands of researchers have turned their focus to the pandemic and its associated impacts. Studies that once took months (or years) to execute and publish now take weeks or even days. The question is: how is this “high-speed science” manifesting itself?
Accelerated publication process
One way is through the innovation and adaptations of journals and publishers. Journals are seeing an unprecedented number of coronavirus-related submissions; for example, The New England Journal of Medicine saw up to 150 coronavirus submissions per day in May 2020. To accommodate the wealth of virus-related research, many journals have accelerated their review process to ensure credible publications are published at a vastly expedited pace. Furthermore, funding agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, have prioritized the grant process in an effort to provide funding to researchers for study treatments, hospital care, vaccines and testing. These efforts aid the scientific community and public with defeating the virus; however, the urgent need for immediate dissemination of information related to COVID-19 has led researchers to explore a different form of publishing: preprints.
Preprint popularity amid the pandemic
While preprint servers have long been part of the scientific process, they have seen surging audiences and use regarding COVID-19 research throughout the past five months. Preprint servers allow researchers worldwide to post their findings (i.e., “preprints”) so that anyone, anywhere can access—in one place—thousands of new academic papers on topics such as the novel coronavirus. Importantly, preprint servers contain works or data that are not yet peer reviewed or accepted by traditional academic journals. As such, preprints have not undergone peer review, meaning that independent experts have not analyzed and critiqued the paper, thus leaving open the possibility for misinformation.
Benefits and concerns of online publishing platforms
The benefits of preprint servers are clear: speed and open access. Preprints rapidly add to important scientific discourse, which is a necessity during a pandemic. In contrast to traditional publishing models, where publishing can take several months or longer, posting a preprint is an instant way to share findings with colleagues and stake a claim on new insights. Preprints are also freely available to the public—in contrast to some journal articles—which can be hidden behind paywalls. Used responsibly, preprints have the potential to accelerate and improve research, inspiring collaborations and sharing preliminary (or final) results, with the possibility of increased feedback from the scientific community as well as the public.
While preprint servers operate as valuable platforms for disseminating knowledge, there are shortcomings, such as the potential for wider dissemination of poor-quality research, and incorrect or misleading information. Such issues can be particularly problematic during a pandemic, when the public relies on media outlets for accurate, up-to-date information. As such, concerns about journalists misinterpreting findings or excluding context critical to understanding a research study, and ultimately providing news coverage on questionable results, have increased. Efforts are being made to explain how journalists, scientists, and the public should use and interpret preprint results; in short, it is essential to understand the context of the science.
Collectively, all members of the scholarly community should be aware that there are benefits and challenges related to online publishing platforms, many of which are being brought to the surface amid the pandemic. The debate about the usefulness and ultimate role of online publishing platforms is still ongoing and will continue to evolve in scholarly publishing.
Looking to read more about preprints? "What are preprint servers and what is their role in scholarly publishing?" covers the basics.